By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 05/02/07):
The high-risk nature of Germany's bid to resurrect the EU constitution is only now sinking in as Berlin confronts the sheer scale of the task Chancellor Angela Merkel has set her country's six-month presidency. While officials remain confident Germany can pull it off, concern is growing about an absence of strong partners - and in particular Britain's unsurprising yet self-defeating lack of interest.
The original EU constitution hit the buffers in June 2005 when French and Dutch voters rejected it. Since then, Europe has supposedly been undertaking a "period of reflection" - although inertia mixed with deep puzzlement over how to proceed may be a better description of the collective state of mind.
Saying an enlarged EU could not work properly until it reformed itself, Ms Merkel, assuming the presidency last month, declared the time for thumb-sucking was over. "We have to find the soul of Europe," she said, or else face an "historic failure". But her quest represents an enormous gamble. At best, success will mean creation of a "road map" by June, pointing to agreement on a revised document by December 2008. At worst, officials admit, Ms Merkel's ambitious bid could trigger the definitive institutional meltdown that British eurosceptics long for and she is desperate to avert."The constitution is the most important project for our presidency," a senior official said. "It is not the case that we are trying to prevent public debate. There will be an inter-governmental conference [in the autumn] during Portugal's presidency. The European parliament will discuss it." Nor was Germany opposed to making changes, the official said, although the cherry-picking approach favoured by French presidential frontrunner Nicholas Sarkozy was not welcome. "Some people just want to change the name. Others go further. The UK says we could drop the charter of fundamental rights. We are not interested in this."
Coming leadership changes in Britain presented peculiar problems, the official said. "For instance, we are not sure who is going to turn up at the June summit. Will it be Blair or Brown? Gordon Brown has had a low profile so far. He is not seen as pro-European." But Germany is far from isolated, with 18 of the 27 EU member states having ratified the constitution already and another four ready to do so. That leaves France, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic and Britain as the targets of Ms Merkel's offensive.
"There will be a major crisis in the EU if it cannot agree a collective approach this summer," the official said. "Portugal and Slovenia [which takes up the presidency in January next year] do not have the means. We have to be up and running by the end of June. There is no plan B." Without a deal, diplomats say there is a real prospect that the EU in practice would increasingly begin to break up into smaller groups of countries functioning in ad hoc, issue-specific "coalitions of the willing", as with the eurozone states.
Constanze Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin said political divisions and paralysis in France were also undermining Ms Merkel's strategy by denying Berlin a heavyweight partner. "Everyone is waiting to see where France is going," she said. "The Franco-German EU engine runs on two wheels and one is not moving. It has shut down since the referendum." A lack of political courage on Europe by both Britain's main parties is meanwhile denying Berlin an alternative partnership with London - while the governments of several other EU members are currently either too weak to show a lead or too introspective to care.
Yet Ms Merkel's ideas were hardly radical, Ms Stelzenmüller said. Nor was the chancellor a supra-nationalist or integrationist, like some in the previous government. "She takes a pragmatic view. The way the EU works now is too cumbersome. She wants some new machinery that will make the EU an equal partner with the US. She probably has sympathy with the British view that prefers a looser federation. And the British ought to be much more interested in working with the EU on issues such as defence and security, the Balkans, Turkey and Iran."
Germany could not do it all alone, nor did it wish to, she said. "It comes down to deciding how far you integrate to make things work. But where are the British?"